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Festival or tragedy: The Portland protests

Events in 1970 show us what could happen in 2020

Festival or tragedy: The Portland protests

People gather in protest in front of the Mark O. Hatfield federal courthouse in downtown Portland on July 24. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

I’m trying to get to the heart of what’s happening in Portland—60-plus straight nights of downtown demonstrations—and is apparently spreading to other cities. How violent are they? What do protesters want and when do they want it? What’s the endgame? Here’s what I’ve put together based on stories filed by two journalists—WORLD correspondent Andrew Shaughnessy with the protesters, Mike Balsano of the Associated Press with the federal agents—and my own experience.  

As night fell on Friday, July 24, thousands of protesters focused their attention on the Mark O. Hatfield Federal Courthouse in downtown Portland, Ore. It has large windows and a white marble interior, but thick plywood now covered its outside, with narrow slits at the top giving the dozens of federal agents inside an opening through which to fire pepper balls.

Garbage and paint splatters covered the steps leading to the courthouse and the terrace outside the front door. Demonstrators regularly shook the black fence now keeping them away from the courthouse’s graffiti-covered walls. A Joshua might say, “There is a noise of war out there.” But a Moses might respond, “It is not the sound of victory or defeat, but the sound of singing.”

Yes, early in the evening some of the protesters blasted music from speakers on their shoulders, played trumpets, and beat drums. Some sang, danced, and batted around beachballs. Smoke poured from the “Riot Ribs” tent where cooks manned grills and handed out racks of barbecued ribs. On the fringes, the smell of cigarettes and marijuana drifted through the air.

A couple walked by, holding hands and discussing the appropriate time to change a gas mask filter. Shaughnessy spoke with another couple, the Perlbergs, who were having what Ashley Perlberg called a “date night. … If we don’t raise anti-racist kids, then I haven’t done my job.” She said, “Our system [needs to] be torn down and rebuilt. … We need to change the government.”

In the Mark O. Hatfield Federal Courthouse, the mood was grim. One federal agent told Balsano, “It’s scary. You open those doors out, when the crowd is shaking the fence, and ... on the other side of that fence are people that want to kill you because of the job we chose to do and what we represent.”

Before 11 p.m. that might have seemed like paranoia. Then the noise of war began to dominate. Some protesters threw commercial-grade fireworks over the fence, injuring five federal agents. Many of the protesters cheered the huge booms and explosions of red, white, and green. Some aimed at the agents’ eyes lasers that can cause permanent blindness. Others threw frozen water bottles, rocks, cans of beans, and eggs.

Then came the federal response. Federal agents hurled tear gas canisters and flash-bang grenades into the crowd. Soon the billowing clouds of gas drifted down the street and protesters started to cough and choke. They gasped for breath and felt like they were drowning. As some protesters retreated and retched on the sidewalk, others ran forward, some with motorcycle body armor and gas masks on, holding in front of themselves umbrellas, sleds, and homemade plywood shields.

Noah Berger/AP

A federal officer fires crowd control munitions at protesters at the Mark O. Hatfield United States Courthouse on July 24. (Noah Berger/AP)

What do the protesters want? Many spoke of peace. One high-school English teacher, Ashley Mountain, said, “I’m here to support Black Lives Matter, to help defund the police, and help get the feds out of Portland, Ore. … I work with youth … I don’t think I can stand in front of them and talk to them about being good citizens and participating in their society if I don’t lead as an example.” Others snorted violence. Graffiti on the courthouse walls included “Kill pigs.”

The mixture of music and melee was enticing for some, but serious injuries lurk. One firework on July 24 exploded with a boom next to a federal agent, deadening his hearing and leaving gouges and burns on his arms. A projectile apparently shot by a federal agent on July 12 left a protester with a fractured skull.

If protests spread around the country, those severe injuries are likely to be only the first fruits of conflict. Fifty years ago, on May 1, 1970, I was on the New Haven Green as protesters confronted National Guard troops. Yippie leader Abbie Hoffman was there: On a pretty spring night it seemed like fun and games. Beat poet Allen Ginsburg was there: As tear gas swirled, he sat on a sidewalk chanting Om Om Om.

On the night of July 24, 2020, an agent at the Mark O. Hatfield Federal Courthouse told Balsano, “I can’t walk outside without being in fear for my life.” Fear can kill. Three days after the New Haven demonstration where soldiers didn’t shoot, some did at Kent State University. Four young people died.

Associated Press

A Kent State University student lies on the ground after National Guardsman fired into a crowd of demonstrators on May 4, 1970 in Kent, Ohio. (Associated Press)

Two of Portland’s black leaders spoke at a July 20 press conference about the endgame they saw. Daryl Turner, president of the Portland Police Association, said: “This is no longer about George Floyd, racial equity, social justice reform, or the evolution of policing. This is about violence, rioting and destruction.” J.W. Matt Hennessee, pastor of the Vancouver Avenue First Baptist Church, told protesters: “We love you as God’s children, but we don’t like what you are doing. Tell us where to meet you so we can have a conversation about how to work together for solutions. Take Portland off the front page of newspapers around the world.”

Their words reminded me of the first U.S. senator I ever interviewed: Mark O. Hatfield, in 1971. I was a beginning reporter in Oregon, not yet a Christian. He was, and staunchly pro-life. Hatfield gave me a book he wrote, Conflict and Conscience, that ends with a prayer he offered, at Richard Nixon’s request, during a White House service on July 20, 1969, the day astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon.

Hatfield prayed for the astronauts and then said, “O God, grant us deliverance from the rhetoric of peace when we personally are not willing to do the things which make for peace.” He prayed for wisdom and concluded with the definition of wisdom in James 3:17—“peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy.”

Marvin Olasky

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD and dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has also been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books, including Reforming Journalism. Marvin resides with his wife, Susan, in Austin, Texas. Follow him on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

Comments

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  • RC
    Posted: Thu, 07/30/2020 11:34 am

    The problem with protesting in America today is that it produces little more than destructive behavior you would expect from tantrum driven two year-old.  Marching around yelling and screaming along with destroying stuff may make one feel like they have some power or are accomplishing something or may make them feel good when they get shown in the media.  The message gets totally muddled in the disorganized, confusing, contradicting and unorganized voices screaming it out.

    A two-year-old lost in a tantrum gets the attention of the parent, but will not get the two-year old what they want.  

    What exactly did the Kent State Protest accomplish?  Was it worth the lives of the of the four students who died there?  Has anyone asked the parents, of those four students, what they think?

  • TW
    Posted: Wed, 07/29/2020 10:33 am

    There were 24 comments on this article as of last evening most questioning certain aspects of this article. Not sure what happened to them all. 

  • HANNAH.
    Posted: Wed, 07/29/2020 08:56 pm

    Your comment was a good reminder for me to reread the website policies, especially the Comment Policy and The Rules of Engagement. (I went to the bottom of the web page and, under Support, I clicked on Website Policies. A faster route may be https://world.wng.org/about/policies ) It was a good corrective. Perhaps the vanishing comments had violated the policy and rules.

  • Web Editor
    Posted: Fri, 07/31/2020 10:13 am

    WORLD’s moderators have not deleted any comments anywhere on the website this week. Could it be you are confusing this article with another one that had more comments? This past week’s Saturday Series book excerpt, for instance, has generated 37 comments as of this morning, probably more than any other article this week.

  • Janet B
    Posted: Wed, 07/29/2020 06:18 pm

    The statements from these two Ashleys frustrate me:

    "the Perlbergs, who were having what Ashley Perlberg called a 'date night. … If we don’t raise anti-racist kids, then I haven’t done my job.' She said, 'Our system [needs to] be torn down and rebuilt. … We need to change the government.' "

    And just how is this behavior raising anti-racist kids?  And to what would she like the goverment to change by tearing down?

    "English teacher, Ashley Mountain, said, 'I’m here to support Black Lives Matter, to help defund the police, and help get the feds out of Portland, Ore. … I work with youth … I don’t think I can stand in front of them and talk to them about being good citizens and participating in their society if I don’t lead as an example.' "

    This statement tells me that either this woman has no idea what the goals of BLM are, or she wants to "lead" her students into thinking that being good citizens means rioting when you are angry about something.

    I am also frustrated that most media outlets, with WORLD getting close, are touting these destructive gatherings as "protests," "marches," and now "festivals."  They are riots.  There is nothing constructive about them.  They serve no purpose except to tear down, as Ashely Perlberg has honestly stated.

    I am, however, encouraged by Pastor Hennessee's boldness to speak truth to the protesters. And I appreciate WORLD's decision to include his quote.  I haven't seen that in the MSM.

     

  • Kathryn Berry
    Posted: Mon, 08/10/2020 10:34 am

    Quote "A projectile apparently shot by a federal agent on July 12 left a protester with a fractured skull."

    Please don't repeat "apparently" info. It's gossip not factual news. Sad that Olasky did not confirm the info or omit it. It reminds of news from an unconfirmed, unreportable, or protected source.  It happens continually in "news" nowadays. 
     

  • Lorena
    Posted: Mon, 08/31/2020 05:39 pm

    It is chilling that a high school English teacher would think that supporting Black Lives Matter sets a good example for her students. Two of the 3 founders of BLM are self-described "trained Marxists" whose end-goal is the destruction of the nuclear family, our entire judicial system and our constitutional government. This is clearly layed out on their website and in their writings.For a well-researched examination of BLM, I recommend the August 18th episode, "Black Lives Matter?" on the Just Thinking podcast with Darrell Harrison and Virgil Walker.